The following is a synopsis of a weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group lesson, based on the work of Marsha Linehan out of the University of Washington.
Disclaimer: I LOVE doing this, I think it is desperately needed, and I WANT to do it. However, I have zero time to do it so, while I am committed to giving it my all, I may fall behind or skip a week or two. I apologize in advance for that, and for the fact that I will not be spell checking, fixing formatting, or doing a read through before I post. No offense, but I gotta draw the line somewhere!
Emotion Regulation Skills Module: Validation
So the holidays got me and I am a few weeks behind, but this lesson is super important for anyone who has Borderline Symptoms, or loves someone who does. This week is on validation, next week is reducing emotional vulnerability, and the following one is on increasing pleasant activities. those are the ones that I missed and they’re all, like all of these skills, really important.
The basic idea of validation is begins with an understanding of the nature vs. nurture concept. With most mental health conditions, we can never be sure if they are biologically based, environmentally caused, or both. Most of us assume, even with conditions that have strong biological evidence (such as Bipolar disorder), that a mental health condition is caused by a combination of both. For example, one might have a long line of people with Schizophrenia in their family history, but if they are raised in an environment that has factors associated with these symptoms (such as confusing or inconsistent parenting messages), the person is much more likely to develop the disorder than someone who isn’t raised in an environment with such risk factors.
So the actual cause of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is unclear, but our basic understanding of how it develops is:
When a person has emotional vulnerability, he/she is probably born this way. People usually can see this from a very early age in themselves, and/or in the ones they love. Emotional vulnerability is:
1. Increased sensitivity: People with BPD tend to feel their feelings more intensely then others, and tend to be very sensitive to the feelings and reactions of others. This is both a gift and a curse, as it gives people emotional depth, but this can be very hard to manage
2. Increased reactivity: Individuals with this issue tend to react immediately to an emotional trigger, and intensely as well. While others may take their time to process emotions more, people with high reactivity may act out immediately upon a feeling, and as a result, may have many regrets which then also serve to trigger emotional reactions.
3. Slow return to baseline: On top of having intense feelings and reacting quickly to them, it takes people with BPD symptoms a very long time to get over their feelings. This then makes them more vulnerable to the next emotional trigger that comes along, because they haven’t gotten over the previous one yet.
Someone who has 2 or 3 of these problems is likely emotionally vulnerable, which is very typical of those with BPD. So is the nurture part of things, growing up in an invalidating environment. This is:
Being in an environment where people tell you that you or your feelings aren’t important, are inaccurate, or are distorted. Abusive environments, addictive or neglectful ones, etc. are obvious examples of an invalidating environment. However, considering that we as a society are very bad at handling our feelings, we have a tendency to invalidate them when they arise. In addition, if someone is emotionally vulnerable, we may get very tired of validating them over and over and over, and be impatient in waiting for them to get over things. So of course, we will invalidate them at some point, and probably repeatedly.
So, it becomes crucial that loved ones learn how to validate, and what is invalidating to others. It is also crucial that people with BPD learn to self-validate, in order to break the cycle of shame that binds them.
Validation is communicating to one’s self or others that feelings are understandable, make sense, and are important. this can be very hard to do when one’s behavior becomes inappropriate, grossly distorted to the situation, or abusive. So it is important to remember to validate the feelings, not the behaviors. Feelings are always appropriate. Thoughts may be distorted, behaviors may be confusing, but feelings are always ok. REMEMBER THAT VALIDATION DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE AGREE WITH SOMEONE! This is so difficult for people because we assume that if we validate someone’s feelings, it means that they are right or their behavior or thinking is accurate or ok. Just like accepting something does not mean that we like it or approve of it, validating one’s feelings does not mean that we like them or agree with them.
HOW do we validate?
Watch our non-verbals. Maintaining eye contact, an even tone of voice, and a relaxed posture is essential for anyone to feel validated. Rolling our eyes, yelling, calling names, or sarcasm are invalidating ways to communicate, and should be avoided as much as possible. We are human, we will sometimes slip when we are frustrated, but being mindful of these things will help us avoid them.
Empathize with the person: Find something to be understanding about. Remember that the person is a human being, and probably one in pain, so try to be empathetic to the person. If you absolutely cannot be empathetic to the person, remember that we all have a back story, and you may not know the pain that this person has. Everyone can use a little empathy from those we love.
Find the grain of truth: There is always a little bit of truth in every person’s perspective. The person may see things completely differently than you, but you can still find the truth in the story, and validate that.
Give up being right: Relationships are not competitions. Give up the need to be right or to have the person see your point of view, and avoid the other person making you see them as right. Agree to disagree and to be respectful of one another rather than to force an opinion.
Take the time to understand: Ask questions, clarify what the person is thinking, and reflect back to the person what you hear them saying. Taking some time to understand where the person is coming from is helpful, even if you don’t have a lot of time to do so. Set aside some time, offer validating statements now even if you don’t fully understand, and get back with the person later if needed.
Let the person know that their feelings are important, understood, and make sense given the situation, how they see things, or because of their past history. Saying things like “I can understand why you would feel this way..” or “You’re allowed to have your feelings whether we disagree or not”….are important things to help the person feel heard, understood, and respected.
Usually, when I teach this lesson in group, members go home and tell their loved ones, “you are invalidating me!” The absolute worst thing to say to this is “I am not!”. This is invalidating in itself, as you are denying the person’s experience. Ask the person why they see it that way, what exactly could you do to validate them? and reflect on how your words, body language, or beliefs about emotions may be contributing to invalidating statements and actions.